Riot Fest had begun life as a scrappy punk/rock showcase in the dank undergrowth of Chicago’s alternative music scene. Left unchecked, it had flourished like mold in a refrigerator until it finally spilled out of its traditional home at the Congress Theatre and emerged into the sunlight as a full-grown music festival. It was now a carnival of porta-potties and amusement rides, which occupied the grassy expanse of Humboldt Park just a few blocks from the Cursèd Place. Our street was now a nightmare snarl of box trucks and cargo vans and tourists from the suburbs who didn’t know how to fucking parallel park.

I sat on the roof watching the traffic lurch past on the street below and stewed about Tombstone. He still refused to answer my messages, so I’d programmed Google alerts to ping my phone any time his name or photo appeared on social media. There had been a handful of sightings in the neighborhood, so wherever he was staying, it was close by, but the festival was closing in, and I still didn’t know if he would show up.

“Still no word from Tombstone?” Kilroy stuck his head out the window and lit a cigarette.

“Nothing yet.”

“Christ, we’re fucked.”

“He’ll be there,” I said with a confidence I didn’t feel.

“And if he isn’t?”

“He’ll be there. His girls’ll be there. And we’ve got the Blackjack.”

It had been an unexpected stroke of luck to learn that Tedrick still had possession of the Blackjack. The rain at Lollapalooza had futzed with her circuitry and Tedrick had taken it upon himself to perform a full technical overhaul on the electronics. I snapped a photo of the guitar laid out on Tedrick’s workbench with the viscera of wires and pickups spilling out in all directions like a biology specimen and texted it to Tombstone.

You want?

Tombstone didn’t respond.

“You’re playin’ with fire, dude,” Tedrick said.

“Whatever it takes to make him show his face,” I replied.

But when the morning of our show rolled around, Tombstone had still not appeared.

I stood on the stage overlooking the still-empty park feeling panic knot in my guts as I watched Tedrick sound check the Blackjack; methodically testing all the pedals and effects as he dialed in Tombstone’s signature tone.

“Still no word from Tombstone?” he asked.


Tedrick ran a riff like he was mentally preparing himself to have to play it in the show. The odds were in his favor. “If he does show up—and that’s looking like a pretty big ‘if’ right now, how’re you going to get him on stage without The Ritual,” he asked.

Ahh yes, The Ritual.

Tombstone’s stage fright was a force of nature. Getting him on stage involved a complicated series of coping mechanisms we called The Ritual: booze, weed, exhaustive guitar warm-ups. A blowjob if we could find a girl who was game for it. He couldn’t go onstage without his hat, without his mirrored sunglasses, without the bottom half of his face hidden beneath a black bandana that made him look like a redneck rip-off Charlie Scene. Pleading. Threatening. Coaxing. Bribing. Guided meditation. We’d tried it all. It usually came down to a matter of force: Tedrick typically had to shove him onto the stage hard enough for him to get him to his amp and plug the Blackjack into its inputs, then he’d be fine.

“I’ll burn that bridge when I get to it,” I said. One problem at a time: first I had to get him to the stage, then, I’d worry about how to get him on it.

My phone pinged to tell me that Lacey was at the side gate with Piper in tow. I arrived at the security checkpoint and waved to a guard to let them inside. Lacey strode into the park boldly, pausing by one of the Riot Fest banners and pursed her lips into a duckface to snap a selfie. She was wearing some kind of sack for a dress with a hem that ended somewhere around her navel.

“You tryin’ to get arrested?” I plucked at the ends of the fabric and she rolled her eyes.

“You sound like Daddy.”

“You tryin’ to get me arrested? Go on, call me ‘Daddy’ one more time.”

It was her turn to blush. “I’m just trying to have some fun,” she said, sullen with embarrassment.

“Well, don’t fun yourself into a roofie.”

“Do I look stupid?”

“No, you look like a plump, fluffy bunny in the middle of a starving wolf pack.” I could feel eyes turning toward us as we passed through the crowd and for the first time in a long time none of them were looking at me.

“I told you,” Piper said. She didn’t look like she was having any fun or like she expected to. She was wearing one of Tombstone’s threadbare flannels over an ancient, faded OBNXS t-shirt that came down practically to her knees; unintentionally hip in her own blithely un-ironic way. I ruffled her hair to her evident annoyance.

“You know everything, eh, kid?”

“I’m not a kid,” she insisted. “I’m a mature young adult. And at least I know not to dress like a prostitute.”

“Seen a lot of prostitutes in your life?” I asked her and she blushed. “They don’t dress any certain way.”

“How would you know.”

“How do you think?” I said, knowing her mind would make the worst of it. Lacey’s lip curled in disgust.


“Keep it up, missy, and you’ll find out just how gross I can be.” I gestured her into the hospitality area where tables had been set up with food and drinks. I glanced around for any sign of Tombstone. Nothing.

Thirty minutes until showtime.

“Where’s Dad?” Piper wanted to know, looking around. Tombstone was close: the Google alerts were all coming from inside the park now as he drifted among the festival goers—just another rock enthusiast out to hear some tunes.

“Don’t know, kiddo. Must still be on his way.”

Fuck. I was going to have to take this another step.

“C’mon, let’s get a selfie.” I handed Lacey my phone, and her face lit up. The light of the display cast two blue sparks into her eyes as she tilted her head until the angle was perfect and the gap in her collar teased a glimpse of her cleavage.

“Ready,” she declared, with eyes only for herself. I squeezed Piper into the edge of her world and put an arm around them both. Piper smiled the artless smile of a pre-teen while Lacey made a peace sign with her free hand and pursed her cotton candy lips. In a burst of camera flash, I licked the side of her face, chin to hairline.

“EEEEEEWWW!!” she squealed, elbowing me away. “You’re so—”


She thrust the phone back into my hand with a dismissive scoff as she scrubbed her face. Jojo chose that moment to rescue me, arriving in a romper nearly as short as Lacey’s dress.

“Cute dress,” she said.

“You like it?” Lacey flashed a victorious smile at me. “He’s being a huge perv about it.”

“Rude,” Jojo agreed, managing to keep a straight face. She turned to Piper: “And look at you, lady—just…look at you.” Piper’s utter lack of fashion sense left her at a loss. She cast a look at me and I shook my head, answering her unspoken question: still no Tombstone.

“C’mon, let’s go talk, just us girls,” she said as she twined an arm through Lacey’s elbow to guide them toward a secluded area where they wouldn’t be kicked out for being underage.

Still no sign of Tombstone?” Kilroy shuffled up looking worried.

“He’ll be here,” I assured him. I scrolled through the photos Lacey had captured, a rapid succession of frames telling a story of vanity, leering misogyny, and disgust. Every father’s worst nightmare for his underage, teenage daughter. I picked the worst of them and texted it to Tombstone’s phone.

Tastes like Teen Spirit.

“If that don’t fetch ‘em, then I don’t know Arkansas.”

“Fetch who?”

I turned to find Marla lurking behind me like a vicious rumor.

“You just get here?” I asked her, stifling the urge to ask how long she’d been there and how much she’d seen or heard. Her outfit was an exercise in conflicting impulses: a milf cosplaying as thot. Her North Shore suburban soccer mom veneer was flaking like the paint job on an ’82 Fiero. Lacey was going to be mortified.

“Took me a minute to flirt my way in,” she preened as she lunged toward me with arms outstretched. “I still got it.”

“Oh, you got it alright.”

I’d given the dude at the gate fifty bucks and strict instructions to let her in but not to make it too easy for her. I wondered how far he’d let her push it.

My phone buzzed in my hand and I glanced at it behind Marla’s back.

You’re dead, shithead.

Come and get me, cocksucker. I texted back, and then added: Your wife says ‘hi’. I took a selfie of myself behind Marla’s back, giving him the finger. I pressed send.

“Did you just take a picture of my ass?”

“Just trying to get your best side.”

Marla snatched for my phone and I held it over her head hooking a finger in the collar of her dress to snap a photo of her tits. I glimpsed a gleam of metal.

“Is that a nipple ring?” I needled her. “Mrs. Robinson, you’re trying to seduce me.”

Marla blushed and rolled her eyes; it was clear where Lacey got it from.

“It’s a nipple shield,” she said. “It’s not permanent or anything.”

“What’s the special occasion?” I leered, then lowered my voice suggestively. “Did you dress up just for me?” I tugged at the collar of her dress again and she blushed more deeply, her eyes bright. I moved closer until we were chest to chest. “What would Tombstone say?”

“I won’t tell him if you won’t,” she whispered, biting her lip. Her hands slid up my chest and I caught her wrists and held them against me. The thought of fucking Marla made my skin crawl but I swallowed my revulsion and bent my head until my lips were a breath away from her neck. I inhaled the smell of her, letting her feel me do it.

“You smell like a woman who hasn’t been fucked in a while,” I growled in her ear, feeling her squirm against me at the sound of the words.

“Yes…” she whispered, her eyes closed, skin flushed with warmth.

“There wouldn’t be anything left of you if I had my way with you,” I extended a finger and brushed the tip of it against her collarbone, the lightest touch. Marla moaned out loud and let her head fall back, sinking into the sensation as—


Tombstone’s arm wrapped around my neck, yanking me off my feet. I let go of Marla and tumbled over backward landing on top of a hundred and eighty pounds of angry redneck. I twisted to my side, struggling to free my throat from his arm before he could lock the grip. We wrestled on the ground, tearing up tufts of grass in our struggle while Marla fluttered nearby, more than a little pleased to have two men fighting over her.

“TJ stop it!” Marla screamed at him, still glossy with lust.

I got out of the headlock, but Tombstone twisted me onto my back and pinned me to the ground. He straddled my chest and wound up a fist.

“Daddy stop!”

Tombstone froze in place, chest still heaving, red-faced with rage. I followed his gaze to where Lacey stood over us, too scared to play it cool. Piper’s lip trembled as she fought back tears.

“We’re on.” Tedrick strode up with the Blackjack in hand, tuned and ready to go. I saw Tombstone close off again: he knew what I was doing. No way was he letting me get away with this. No way was he going to let me win.

“Daddy, please don’t—” Lacey begged. The sound of her voice seemed to cut through his anger and I could see his fist loosen. He didn’t want to fight in front of his girls. He seethed and I could see his mind racing. It wasn’t too late: he could still walk away without losing face and I’d be left with my thumb up my ass. If I ever wanted to be able to leverage him onto the stage, I was going to have to make him take the punch.

 “Daddy, stop,” I mimicked her. “Daddy, please don’t—”

Whatever control Tombstone had over his anger broke. I tucked my chin, bracing for the impact, hoping he didn’t decide to aim for my mouth—not if I wanted to have any chance of doing a show afterward. I felt knuckles connect with my left eye and saw stars.

Tedrick hauled him off of me before he could punch again and fuck up his hand, but Tombstone still managed to kick me in the ribs hard enough to knock the wind out of me. He spat, the gob of it hitting the ground beside my head as I coughed and groaned and struggled to roll onto my feet.

Tedrick held out the Blackjack again, but Tombstone waved it away, pacing in an angry circle, burning off the anger and adrenaline. Marla was on him like wet silk on a windowpane, murmuring something in his ear, pressing her body to his side. A minute ago she’d been ready to let me bend her over the table, but now she was Tombstone’s girl: all sweetness and devotion.

“You alright?” Security was closing in. I waved them away.

“Fine,” I said. “It’s just my face.”

“You want to call the cops? Press charges?”

“Fuck, no. I got a show to do.”

The show must go on.

New chapters released every week. Come back and read the next chapter absolutely FREE!!

CHAPTER 26: GUITAR HERO will go live Monday, December 20th , 2021

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 It wasn’t the first time a woman had slammed a door in my face, and it sure as hell wasn’t going to be the last, but I wasn’t prepared to give up without a fight. I went looking for her at the club with a Riot Fest pass in hand as a peace offering.

“I told you, she’s not working tonight!” Evelyn said in exasperation after I’d pestered her for almost an hour. “You’re obsessed.”

“I am not.”

“You are.” Evelyn insisted. She filled a pitcher in the bar’s sink. The water smelled like iron. The whole bar area smelled like stale blood. It was a Wednesday night and if Melody was working then she was doing a good job of avoiding me. “C’mon, you wouldn’t be hanging around if it was anybody else and you found out they had kids: you hate kids.”

“I don’t hate kids; I’m just not looking to be anybody’s daddy. You know—unless they’re over eighteen and into that kind of thing.”

“Damnit, you’re hopeless.” Evelyn kicked aside one of the rubber floor mats and poured the water down a drain in front of the coolers. “She works when she wants to work. I usually don’t see her till the weekend.”

I cursed inwardly: if I couldn’t give the pass to Melody, then my second plan was to give it to Evelyn to give to Melody but by the weekend it would be too late.

“You got change, lady?” Father Mohawk sidled up to the bar beside me and plunked a metal coffee can down on the countertop. He peeled off the plastic lid and pull out a wad of singles which he smoothed into stacks on the bar in front of him. His lips moved silently as he counted, and the dollar store rosary around his wrist clinked against the lip of the can every time he reached inside for another wad.

“Who the hell comes into a strip club with a coffee can full of singles and exchanges it for twenties?” I asked. I picked up one of the stacks of bills and flipped through it, momentarily distracted from the Great Melody Dilemma.

“Play nice,” Evelyn said. She snatched the cash out of my hand and re-counted the bills before sliding a handful of twenties across the bar to Father Mohawk who bundled them with a rubber band and tucked them into a pocket.

“I’m buildin’ a church,” he said.

“That’s a good one, tell me another.”

“It’s true!”

“So, you’re really a priest?”

“Yup.” Father Mohawk glanced at me sideways and grinned like a little kid who was up to no good. “Well, almost. I haven’t been ordained yet. Soon, though, I hope.” He stuck out a hand. “Jesse. Father Jesse.”

Father. That was rich. He was younger than me.


“—Warner. From OXBVI.”

“That’s right.”

“Imma fan… God, sorry, I’ve been trying to be cool, but…” Jesse struggled to suppress the keening delight he’d been bottling up for some time now.

“What the hell is a priest doing in a strip club?”

“Confession,” he grinned. “Where better ‘n here, right? Come for the titties, leave with the Holy Spirit. One stop shop.”

“Good work if you can get it,” I said. Based on the wad of twenties he’d shoved down the side of his kilt, business was booming. “Just how much does a confession go for these days?”

“Oh, it’s free. Strictly donations. You wanna try it? Confession, I mean?” It wasn’t a question so much as an invitation.

“I’m good,” I said.

“Are you?”

“I’m not Catholic.”

“You don’t have to be; I’ll still help you.” Father Jesse pushed himself away from the bar and nodded toward the hallway leading to the bathrooms with a jerk of his head. “C’mon, I’ll show you how it works—in case you change your mind.” He tucked the coffee can under his arm and loped off down the corridor without waiting to see if I was following him. I glanced at Evelyn who stared back, interested to see what I would do.

“Is this guy for real?” I asked.

She just shrugged. “One way to find out.”

Feeling self-conscious, I shuffled down the hall. Father Jesse waited beside a door that led to what seemed to be a storage closet. He pushed it open as I approached and ducked inside, the tips of his hair brushing against the top of the door frame.

“It’s a bit tight,” he said. “Just squeeze in.”

“That’s what she said.”

The storage closet was half occupied by a grinding row of refrigerators full of pop for the bar, pumping hot air into the closed room. What wasn’t taken up by the drinks cases was filled with cardboard boxes and cleaning supplies. Father Jesse gestured me toward a broken dance booth propped in a corner. The plush sidewall was marred by a fist-sized hole that had been clawed through the upholstery and fiberboard at about waist height. I took a seat and did my best to get comfortable. I could see Father Jesse through the hole doing his best to arrange his long limbs in a folding chair wedged between the booth and the wall. There was a flurry of thuds and a muffled swear and then he settled into silence.

The room was womb-like in its warmth. I could hear the thudding bassline of the music outside but the booth smothered it into a muted heartbeat that felt strangely cozy.

“So, this is confession,” I said.

“Yep. This is it.”

“How’d you end up here? With all this?” I gestured to the booth around me, remembering too late he probably couldn’t see me.

“Convent next door—the seminary sent me there to serve—I think they hoped the nuns would get me in line, with the hair and the clothes an’ all. Didn’t work, obviously.”


“Almost made me quit, though. Walked out one day thinking maybe I’d made a mistake—like I’d gotten The Call but it had been meant for someone else, right? An’ I ran into Rocco on my way out—you know Rocco? The floor host? Big guy with the shaved head? We were buddies growing up—had the same foster parents for a while, an’ he brought me here, an’ there was Camille—” I heard him laugh through his nose. “Dressed as a Catholic school girl, can you imagine? An’ me with the collar—she thought it was a fetish thing. An’ well, you know, Camille being Camille…”

“She made you see God?”

“Ha. She certainly tried. D’you know she has a law degree? Not that you’d guess it to look at her. Maybe it’s why we get along. A lawyer that doesn’t look like a lawyer an’ a priest that doesn’t look like a priest.”

“The club doesn’t mind?”

I heard a jingle as he shrugged. “I pay house—tip out Rocco and Judge, just like the dancers. The girls seem to like it—some of the patrons too, an’ I do my best to keep the nuns off their back. Kinda works out.”

I shook my head: reality was sure as hell stranger than fiction.

“So, what brings you here?” Father Jesse asked.


“Okay, yeah, besides that.”

“My sister’s the bartender.”

“Eden, right?”


Lalalalalala—she goes by Eden here. Okay? I don’t need her real name. I’m here t’ be a… whatsit called? You know, someone you can tell stuff? Like a secret? An’ they gotta keep it to themselves?”

“Confidante?” I supplied.


“That’s the one: confidante. What you say to me, you’re saying to God.”

“In that case, fuck you,” I said.

Father Jesse laughed and it sounded like he meant it. “Okay, cool. What else?”

“What’s the deal with the platypus?”


I poked a finger into the hole in the wall as I tried to imagine telling all my darkest personal failings to this weird punk kid. Loose pills of stuffing spilled out through the torn fabric and crumbling particleboard.

“Hang on, is this a glory hole?” I said, realizing what I was looking at. I yanked my hand back like I’d been burned.

Father Jesse laughed. “Yeah, probably. Helps me hear, though. Too many concerts and I’m mostly deaf. You know how it is.”

“Yeah, okay, well, I’m not gonna whisper my secrets into a dick socket.”

“Fair enough.” Jesse retrieved his coffee can and stood up. He emerged from behind the padded wall and gestured toward the door. “Listen, I’m around if you change your mind.” He was smiling, but his eyes were serious. “Doesn’t hafta be confession. Not every problem gets solved with absolution. Some of ‘em just need a-solution.”

Puns. Truly the sign of a deranged mind.

I stepped back out into the comfortable anonymity of an ear-splitting R&B bassline and a thought occurred to me: “D’you know a dancer called Melody?” I shouted.


“You know if she’s working tonight?”

“Haven’t seen her.” Father Jesse stopped me short in the middle of the hallway with a hand on my chest. “I’m not gonna tell you her secrets: her name, when she works, her number, whatever. She wants you to know she’ll tell you herself.”

“Yeah, no—I know,” I said. “I already—I—we been kinda seeing each other. I just found out she has a kid—I wanna tell her I don’t care, but she’s been avoiding me—” The words spilled out of me before I could stop them. Father Jesse just waited, listening. “This is stupid. I’m stupid. Sorry…”

“’S not stupid,” Father Jesse said. “You’re keen on her—I see that. She’s keepin’ you at arm’s length. She maybe needs the space to feel safe, y’know? You chase her down you’re gonna chase her away. Let her come to you.”

 I pulled the Riot Fest pass out of my pocket and stared at it, feeling like a moron.

“Anyway, I brought her a pass. We’re playing Riot Fest—she said she’d come if I got her a pass, but…well…”

“You wanna give it to me? I’ll make sure she gets it.”

“Can I trust you?”

“I don’t know, can you?” He smiled, but it wasn’t a joke. “That’s the thing about faith, brother, y’never know if you get it right till afterwards. Sometimes you just gotta take the leap and hope for the best.” He peeled the lid off the coffee can and held it out to me. I stared at the open maw of it: waiting for my offering.

Take the leap. Hope for the best…

I dropped the pass inside.

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CHAPTER 25: RIOT FEST will go live Monday, December 13th , 2021

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There were only two seasons in Chicago: winter, and construction. Construction season was in full swing along Route 41 where the pavement had been ground down to a tooth-rattling sub-layer in preparation for re-surfacing. By the time I passed the Botanic Gardens, my arms were numb from the vibrations. I waved as I passed, thinking about Evelyn: I hadn’t seen her since Mom’s big news and I wondered how she was taking it. Since I had to go through Evanston on my way home anyway, I figured I might as well stop in and say hi.

Evelyn’s house was a Chicago bungalow with a glassed-in porch. I recognized her Honda Accord parked in the driveway with a Northwestern sticker in the back window. I climbed the steps to her front door and beat on it until I heard footsteps approaching. A bolt turned and Evelyn’s face appeared at a crack in the door. The aroma of baking cookies drifted out.

“Heeeeeere’s Johnny!” I said.

“Damen!” her astonishment was real. “What are you doing here?”

“I was in the area. Thought I’d stop by. Can I come in?”

Evelyn hesitated. “I’m babysitting…”

“I’ll be on my best behavior.”

Reluctantly, she stepped aside to let me into a living room furnished with Ikea furniture and botany textbooks. Eclectic. Cozy. The living room was decorated with Georgia O’Keefe prints and illustrations of various plants. I recognized the print of a cow skull Evelyn had once sent to me as a postcard. I had it tattooed on my back. A pair of cats, one golden and tabby, one all black, watched me from a sunny spot in the middle of the floor, sprawled out luxuriously. The two of them blinked golden eyes in my direction, deeming my presence acceptable.

“Nice place you got here.”

A timer went off in the kitchen, followed by the piping of a child’s voice.

“Evie! The timer went off!”

“I’m coming,” Evelyn shuffled toward the kitchen.

I kicked off my flip-flops beside a miniature pair of Converse sneakers and followed her into the kitchen in bare feet.

The kitchen was on the sunny side of the house. Evelyn was bent over the oven helping a five-year-old lift out a tray of steaming cookies. With intense concentration, the girl guided the cookie sheet onto the stovetop, both arms embedded in oven mitts up to her elbows.

 “Good job.” Evelyn closed the oven door and shut off the gas. The little girl turned to stare at me, unabashedly.

“Why is your hair blue?” she wanted to know.

“It’s my favorite color.”

“Blue is okay. I like yellow better,” she grinned, showing a gap in her bottom teeth where a baby tooth had fallen out. “What’s wrong with your face?”

I looked at Evelyn. “I like this kid.” I made myself comfortable at the table to get closer to her height. “So, this one time I went fishing, right? And this biiiig fish started biting and it just took off! And I fell over face first in the tackle box.” I demonstrated this, bashing my face toward the table and slapping the tabletop with a bang. The girl jumped and squealed in delight. I brought my face up, eyes crossed. “It’s been like this ever since.”

“No!” she squealed. “That’s not true!”

“Yes, it is!”

“No, it’s not!”

“You callin’ me a liar?”

“Yes!” She scrambled up on a chair next to me and put her hands over her head. Evelyn retrieved the oven mitts and began scooping cookies onto a cooling rack.

“I have my ears pierced,” she said, showing me two tiny baby studs, one in each earlobe.

“Oh yeah? Well, I have my tongue pierced.” I stuck out my tongue to show her. She giggled and stuck out her own tongue.

“Oh yeah?” she said. “Well, I can do this.” She stuck out her tongue and touched it to the tip of her nose.

“You win. If I could do that, I’d have a girlfriend.” The implication of this went over her head, but I heard Evelyn choke on her coffee.

“What’s your name, Girl Child?”

“Vico. It’s short for Victoria. What’s your name?”

“Damen. Short for Damen. Evie’s my sister.”

“I like Evie.”

“Me too.”

Evelyn put a plate of cookies down on the table and I helped myself to one. They were still warm.

“When did you become so domesticated?” I asked.

“Please, it’s store-bought dough.”

“Can I have one?” the Girl Child asked her.


I pushed the plate toward her. “Don’t listen. Have lots.”


Girl Child gleefully snagged a second cookie.

“That’s how the world works, Girl Child. You gotta take the stuff you want.” I snatched the rest of the cookies away from her. “Mine!”

“No, mine!”

“No, mine!”

Evelyn watched this in exasperation.

“I’m surrounded by children.” She took the plate out of my hand as I held it high out of Girl Child’s reach. She snagged a cookie for herself and came inches from shoving it in her mouth, sniffed it longingly, then put it back on the plate. “Her mom’s gonna kill me. You’re a bad influence.”

“Just doin’ my job.”

The doorbell rang.

“Shoot, that’s probably her now. You gotta go.” Evelyn gestured for me to get to my feet.


“Because I don’t want her mom to see you and freak out,” she said. “Vico, get your backpack.”

“Words hurt, you know.”

“Yeah! Words hurt!” Girl Child had my back.

“Backpack! Now!” Evelyn pointed to a bag of scattered library books on a bench by the back door. Girl Child obeyed.

“Stay here,” Evelyn ordered me. She made her way into the living room and I heard the door open and a muffled exchange of words.

“You would not believe the day I’m having,” Vico’s mother’s voice was familiar; I tried to place it. “I needa come in. You got anything to drink? I need a fucking drink. Victoria! Get your shoes!” I heard the loud, hard pops of high heels on the wooden floor as she approached the kitchen. I considered hiding; but then she appeared in the doorway and my heart leaped into my throat.


I stared at her dumbfounded.

“What the hell are you doing here?” she demanded. Her face was swollen and it looked like she’d been crying. Under her jacket I could see the collar of a blouse that was buttoned all the way up to her throat as if she were trying to look conservative, except it was in a bright color that no normal person would wear.

“Uhh, Evelyn’s my sister?”

“Him?!” Melody pointed at me, scowling at Evelyn as if she had betrayed her somehow.

“Yeah…?” Evelyn looked uncertainly from Melody to me and then back again, trying to figure out what she was missing. Something seemed to click in her head and she made a gagging face. “EEUURGH! God! Him?! This was the ‘rockstar’ you slept with?” She gouged the word ‘rockstar’ out of the air with her fingers.

“Harsh, Evil, harsh,” I said.

Evelyn was unrepentant. “There were details,” she said. “I can’t un-hear that—” she paused as a mental picture danced across her mind. “Oh, God, make it stop.”

Melody just glared. “You didn’t tell me he was going to be here.” She grabbed Vico by the arm and yanked her toward the door.

“She didn’t know,” I said. “I just dropped in.” I sprang to my feet and blocked her path. “You didn’t tell me you had a kid.”

 “Cuz it’s none of your goddamn business.”

“OOowww, Mamaaaa,” Girl Child whined, twisting her arm in Melody’s grasp.

“Hey—don’t be like that—it’s not her fault.”

“Go put on your shoes, Vico.” Melody gave the Girl Child a shove toward the front door and then grabbed me by the arm to march me out the back. Once outside, she pushed me down the back steps until we were eye-to-eye with each other. I stared at her, still reeling.

“Whose kid is she?”

“None of your business.”

“It’s gonna be my business real quick when baby daddy comes looking for the tool who’s porking his baby mama.”

“He’s not in the picture.” Melody dismissed this with a wave of a hand.

 “This is why you never come out,” I said, putting it together. “Why you didn’t want me to give you a ride home—why you only wanted to see me at the club—”

“I’m not gonna introduce my daughter to everybody I hook up with,” Melody said through bared teeth.

“Is that all we are? A hookup?”

“Why, you want more? You want a relationship?”

“Goddamnit, don’t do that.”

“Do what?”

“Answer a question with a question. Just answer me!”

“You don’t get to tell me what to do.” She turned to go back inside the house. I grabbed her by the wrist, desperate to stop her.

“Melody, wait!” I wasn’t sure what I was doing. My feelings were suddenly tangled and agonizing. “C’mon, don’t go, please? This doesn’t have to change anything—I don’t care if you have a kid: she’s a pistol—I love her, don’t—just…give me a shot.”

I was begging. I was desperate.

I failed.

“I don’t gotta give you anything,” Melody growled. “You don’t own me.”

Then she turned on her heel and went back into the house, slamming the door in my face.

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CHAPTER 24: A*SOLUTION will go live Monday, December 6th , 2021

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We had no fucking guitarists.

Riot Fest was two weeks away and we had no fucking guitarists.

Jojo and I were loading equipment into the Gray Area, trying to transform the derelict warehouse into someplace we could rehearse. I heaved the final road case into a corner while she worked to decompress her full drum kit from its various bags and trunks. Nearly a third of the rehearsal space was now given over to a massive array of drums, cymbals, stands, pedals, sticks, thrones, and miscellaneous percussion items including, but not limited to, a woodblock, a piece of slate shingle, a set of fantasy chimes, a jar of pennies, and a trash can lid.

Jojo opened one of the larger drum cases and was bombarded with an avalanche of t-shirts. “What the—omigod, GOREY!” she swore.

“What’d he do?”

She pulled out a tom and extracted a bale of t-shirts from inside the hollow. “He packed my drum cases full of fucking merch.” It was true; every inch was crammed with crap that could be sold: stickers, t-shirts, CDs—all no doubt swiped from the Robot Overlords while packing up our final show. She threw the fist full of t-shirts on the floor, then sighed. “I miss that fucking maniac. It’s weird without him around.”

“He’ll be back,” I said.

“How can you be sure? He said he was leaving the band, right?”

“His guitar is still here.”

“I haven’t heard from him, have you?”

“No, but we got money coming in now. Once he gets a whiff of the cash he’ll be back. Just watch.”

I was certain of this fact even if I wasn’t sure about anything else. Between the Firestone buyout and Riot Fest, it was just a matter of time before our filthy lucre lured him out of the woodwork. And if he didn’t show up by the time Riot Fest rolled around, I could always tap our guitar tech, Tedrick, to fill in for him. Tedrick had been our bassist for eight months while Kilroy was in rehab and had stood in for Gorey when he sprained his wrist trying to teach himself parkour. He’d even stood in for Tombstone a handful of times when sickness or stage fright got the better of him. As a guitarist, he had zero imagination, but he made up for it in brute-force effort and he was the person we called whenever we needed someone to patch the band back together.


We loved him.

The bigger problem was Tombstone. We hadn’t spoken since our fight at Club Lure, in spite of my efforts to make amends. I’d called a dozen times, but the calls went straight to voicemail and the voicemails went unanswered.  No one knew where he’d gone. No one knew if he was coming back. I wasn’t even sure Riot Fest was on his radar

But Tedrick couldn’t replace both Gorey and Tombstone at the same time.

“You hear from Tombstone yet?” I asked for the millionth time.

“Still nope.”

“We have no fucking guitarists.”

“Have you talked to Marla?” Jojo asked. “If anyone knows where he is it’ll be her.”

“I was hoping it wouldn’t come to that.” The thought of dragging my ass to the suburbs to talk to Tombstone’s ex-wife ranked somewhere between a tax audit and a root canal on my personal scale of nightmares, but I was getting desperate.

I drove out to the suburbs the next day without calling first.

Marla’s house, paid for by Tombstone, was a McMansion in the northern suburbs. It was masturbatory in its grandeur: situated in a subdivision filled with barn-like palaces. Size mattered. In this neighborhood it mattered more than anything else. It didn’t just outweigh taste, it actively persecuted it and beat it into submission.

I parked the GTO on the cul-de-sac where the Tombstone Manor presided over the neighborhood like a dowager countess. A manicured lawn sloped artfully to a grand entrance where a two-story glass atrium showcased an antebellum spiral staircase. The insistent yapping of a tiny dog drew my eye to the sidewalk where a pair of neighbors eyed me with suspicion as I climbed out of the drivers’ seat. I waved, and they hustled down the sidewalk clutching their designer handbags close and hiding their gossip behind premium coffees.

I approached the front door and pressed the buzzer. Somewhere deep in the house, the bells of Westminster announced my presence. A flood of cold air poured over me as the door opened to reveal a mousy, twelve-year-old girl in patterned leggings and socked feet: Tombstone’s younger daughter, Piper. Her face lit up to see me.

“Damen!” Piper leaped toward me and wrapped her arms and legs around my body like she always had as a kid. Only she wasn’t a kid anymore. I hoped Judgy Eyes and Tiny Dog weren’t watching. I swung her around once in the most avuncular way I could manage and set her back down on the doorstep.

“Your folks around?” I asked nodding toward the vast, cool depths of the house.

Piper shook her head. Her hair was a downy brown; perfectly straight. It hung to her shoulders interrupted only by a headband with a butterfly on it. She took a Blow-Pop out of her mouth, her teeth stained red and wired with braces. “Mom’s picking up Lacey. She’s in Saturday school.” Her emphasis on ‘Saturday’ made it clear she meant ‘remedial’.

“Not you, though.”

“No. I get straight A’s,” Piper stepped back. “You wanna come in? They’ll be right back.”

I stepped into the house and Piper closed the door behind me with a vacuum-like thwip that sealed out the Midwestern summer. I looked around for some sign that Tombstone might be in residence. There was none. Humans didn’t live here. Everything gleamed with newness like it had just been taken out of its plastic wrap. The walls of the massive entryway were lined with framed photographs of the girls under a florid inscription that read Live, Laugh, Love! in gold lettering. The air smelled like potpourri.

“What about your dad? He around?” I asked, following Piper into the kitchen and opening the fridge to see if there was anything worth eating. There wasn’t.

“Mom kicked Dad out again.” Piper pulled the Blow-Pop out of her cheek and looked sad. “I’m not really ‘sposed to talk about it cuz it’s ‘Family Business’.”

“Your mom tell you that?”

“Did Mom tell her what?” Marla’s voice pierced the kitchen as she let herself in through the garage door. She had a monogrammed handbag over one shoulder and an earth-friendly tote in each hand. Seeing me, she squealed and clopped forward in kitten heels to wrap both manicured arms around my neck.

“Daymeeeeee! How the heck’ve you been, honey?!” She pushed me away and smoothed her hair, preening for my benefit. Everything about her was conspicuously expensive: her highlights, her veneers, her tan, but she came from the same brackish end of the gene pool as Tombstone, and no amount of money was ever going to wash the hick out of her. Behind her, Lacey wafted in the door and glanced up from her new iPhone long enough to roll her eyes.

Marla began to put away the groceries in a dervish of movement that seemed to require an extraordinary amount of bending and reaching. “If you’re looking for TJ, he’s not here,” she purred, bending at the waist to put a bottle of vanilla flavored vodka into a freezer drawer. “He is out of the picture.”

“Mom kicked him out last week,” Lacey supplied in a sardonic monotone without looking up from her phone. “She says if he’s going to cut her off from her payments then she’s going to cut him off from us.” She snapped her gum with a pointed glare in Marla’s direction.

“You are grounded until next month, young lady. Give me that phone.”

Lacey’s mouth dropped open as Marla snatched the iPhone out of her hands and dropped it into her purse.


“Don’t ‘Mom’ me, princess, or I’ll take the car too and you can take the bus to school.”

Lacey stomped out of the room in a roar of frustration punctuated with the salute of a slamming door. It was Marla’s turn to roll her eyes.

“Girls,” she said. “Never have children, but especially never have girls.” She caught a glimpse of Piper staring at her feet trying to make herself as small as possible and relented. She went over to her and smoothed her hair. “Not you, angel, you’re just fine.” She kissed the part in Piper’s mousey hair. Then she sniffed. “Is that cherry I smell?”

Piper tensed as Marla snatched up the Blow-Pop wrapper, which had been partly hidden under the edge of one of the shopping bags.


“I’m sorry!”

“What did I tell you about having candy in the house!”

“I’m sorry!!” Piper was nearly in tears.

“It’s my fault,” I cut in. “I brought it as a present. I didn’t know it was off-limits.”

Piper stared at me wide-eyed, then looked at her mother as Marla looked at her for confirmation. She gulped and nodded.

“You should have said no,” Marla told her.

“C’mon, Marla, you know how hard it is to say ‘no’ to me.” I snagged the wrapper out of her hand and made her grab for it until we were chest to chest and then waltzed her around the kitchen, ending with a dip that made her shriek with laughter. “I’m a bad, bad influence.”

“Yes, you are.” Marla was suddenly all eyelashes. I felt a surge of loathing. There was easy, and then there was Marla. I would’ve had more sympathy for her if she wasn’t the kind of woman who dangled her sexuality like bait for the sheer delight of holding it out of reach.

“I couldn’t come to town and not stop in, could I?”


“To see my…biggest…fan…” I tapped the tip of her nose with my finger, and then pushed past her to sweep Piper up off the floor and twirl her around. Marla staggered slightly as her gambit lost traction.

“You’re coming to our show, right?” I asked Piper after I set her feet back on the ground.

“I don’t know—Mom? Can I?”

“Show? What show?” Marla demanded.

“I mean, it’s just Riot Fest. It’s not a big deal,” I sighed like this was a burden. “But, I mean, money is money amiright? Surprised Tombstone didn’t mention it. It just came up last minute, though—when did you last talk to him?”

“Yesterday,” Marla said. She drummed her fingers on the countertop. The hollow tapping of her acrylic nails sounded like a dog’s claws on a tile floor. “He came by to pick up Rita.”


Rita was Tombstone’s session guitar: a ‘69 Pink Paisley Telecaster that he’d acquired in a Devil-Went-Down-To-Georgia style guitar duel against Keith Richards. Rita was his most prized possession. He never took her on stage—certainly not for an outdoor festival. If Tombstone knew about Riot Fest, he would have taken his stage guitar: the Blackjack, instead.

“TJ didn’t say anything about a show,” Marla was saying. I arranged my face into an indifferent expression. “He said he was going to get session work. Steady work—no more of this feast or famine bullshit.”

“Well, you know how it goes—gotta strike while the iron’s hot.”

I haven’t heard anything about you playing Riot Fest either,” she persisted.

“Well, you’ve been out of the scene for a while now,” I said, lobbing the statement over my shoulder like a grenade. Marla prided herself on knowing All Things Band Related and to suggest otherwise was heresy of the worst kind.

“What?!” she screeched.

“You’re coming to Riot, though, right? I can probably get you a pass…”

“Shut up!” Marla liked to think she was the kind of girl who could flirt her way in any door, and it might have been true once, back when she was nineteen and willing to get a little handsy with security, but she was a suburban soccer-mom now. The only way she’d get backstage now would be by demanding to speak to a manager.

“Heyyy, all I meant was you’re all respectable now,” I pulled her in close, toying with the wedding band hanging around her neck on a gold chain. Her breath hitched at the sudden nearness. “I mean, look at you. When did you get so…uptight?”


“Here in your pretty little dollhouse: suburbs, soccer games, organic groceries? C’mon seize the day while you’re still young…ish.” If I negged her any harder she was going to end up in therapy. I leaned in until I could whisper in her ear and played the last card I had in my deck: “Forget Tombstone—come for me. Make him regret it.”

I let the unspoken promise hang in the air between us for a minute. Marla bit her lip. My work was finished: she was hooked—wild horses wouldn’t keep her from the show now. I stood up sharply, snapping reality back into focus.

“Welp, tell TJ I said hi,” I said, then turned to Piper. “C’mon, kiddo, walk me out.”

Piper accompanied me to the driveway where Lacey lounged against the front fender of the Goat. I got the impression she’d been waiting for me. Unlike Piper, Lacey was a sweet sixteen Go-Straight-To-Jail-Card and she knew it. She sized me up and tucked a stray strand of hair behind one ear. Her shirt was loose—some kind of jersey so thin it showed as much as it covered. I opened the driver’s side door and leaned on it—keeping it between us.

“You two coming to the show?” I asked. If Tombstone was really as OUT of the picture as Marla wanted me to believe, there was a chance that even she wouldn’t be enough to get him to rise to the bait. But his girls were something else.

“Mom would never let us,” Piper said.

“So, don’t tell her. Sneak out, then sneak back in. She’ll never know. Your sister looks like a pro if ever I saw one.” I nodded toward Lacey whose eyes twitched toward a trellis running down the side of the house. “Yeah, you look like you’ve got a system.”

“You sneak out?!” This was news to Piper. “How? Where do you go?”

“A lady never reveals her secrets.” Lacey looked annoyed that I’d clocked her. “Is Dad really going to be there?”

“It wouldn’t be much of a show without a guitarist.” That much was true: if he didn’t show we were going to end up on stage with nothing but our dicks in our hands. Fuck.

“It wasn’t cuz of money, you know,” she said.

“What wasn’t?”

“Mom kicking Dad out. It wasn’t cuz of money—Dad already paid the September support check. He bought me the new iPhone.”

“Yeah? What was it about?”

“I dunno. Relationship stuff, I guess. They had a huge fight about it,” Lacey shrugged. The collar of her shirt slid off her shoulder. “Mom’s not ‘sposed to ask what Dad does on the road, but then he found out she was seeing a guy from her tennis club and he got mad…I dunno…It’s not like they’re married or anything.”

“It’s complicated, huh.”

“Mom won’t let us see him anymore. She’s such a bitch—I hate her.”

 “She can’t stop you from seeing him on stage, right?” I gave her ponytail a tug. “C’mon down to the show. I’ll sneak you in.” Said the thirty-year-old man to two underage girls. I felt creepy just saying it. “You’re already grounded. You know your mom is gonna take away the car anyway; make it worth it.”

“I dunno…” Piper looked doubtful, but then she was the smart one. Lacey didn’t need to be asked twice.

“We’ll be there,” she said.

New chapters released every week. Come back and read the next chapter absolutely FREE!!

CHAPTER 23: THE GIRL CHILD will go live Monday, November 29th, 2021

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“What the hell’s all this?” I asked.

The front porch of the Cursèd Place was buried waist-deep in cases of beer and bales of toilet paper. Kilroy slouched indolently on a rickety lawn chair behind the smoldering chimney of his bong. His attention meandered back and forth between a delivery man wheeling another dolly full of beer toward the steps and a chubby brown kid carrying them one by one into the house.

“Gift from Judge.”

“Beer and toilet paper?”

“He asked if we needed anything, so I said we could use some beer and toilet paper. I figured we’d get a twenty-four pack of Keystone and a few rolls of whatever they use at the club, but…” He gestured toward the heaps of provisions.

“Ax and ye shall receive,” I said.

“I’ll say.”

The brown kid emerged from the house and picked up another case. His t-shirt was starting to soak through with sweat from the effort.

“Who’s the kid?” I asked.

“Dunno.” Kilroy took another hit off the bong and let the smoke seep out of his mouth and nose. “I found him in the pantry. I think he’s been living there.”

“The pantry?”

“That big closet off the kitchen—”

“I know what a pantry is.”

“I was looking for a place to stash all this shit, an’ he was just in there chillin.’ Had a little, you know, blanket fort. Not sure where he got the blankets from—they’re not ours. I felt bad I hadda kick him out—told him if he loaded in all these boxes he could crash on the couch.”

I wondered what trail of Faygo and Doritos had led this kid to our doorstep and decided it didn’t matter: he was here now and there was no getting rid of him.

We had a barnacle.

Our luck must’ve been changing; every band of a certain size developed an ecosystem of hangers-on around the edges: groupies and fanatics and cold-eyed opportunists who would happily eat shit just to get a piece of the action. We called ours The Legion. They tended, on the whole, to be long on mania and rather sparing of intellect. As far as I could tell, this kid was no exception.

“He got a name?”

“He told me, but I forgot.” Names had never been Kilroy’s strong suit.

The delivery guy climbed the steps and handed me a clipboard. “You sign this?” he asked. I expected to see a delivery slip, but instead it was a photograph of my face.

“You need a delivery slip signed too?” I asked.

The delivery guy shook his head. “This all’s fallin’ off the truck, ‘f you know what I’m sayin’.” He brushed a finger off the side of his nose. “Roads ‘round here are real bad.”


“It’s a goddamn travesty,” I agreed, signing the autograph and slapping the pen down on the clipboard. “Be a shame if a bus full of nubile college coeds broke down one of these days.”

“Wouldn’t it, though?” the delivery guy said with a grin. “You need anything else from the Golden Goose, just say the word.”

“Got it.”

 The delivery guy slapped me on the back then headed for his truck without a backward glance.

“Never a dull goddamn moment,” I muttered, prying open the cardboard of one of the boxes to pull out a bottle of beer: Goose Island. I laughed.

“What’s so funny?” Kilroy wanted to know.

I tossed him the bottle.

“Goose Island,” I said. “From Judge. The Golden Goose.”

Kilroy stared at the bottle in his hand, still trying to understand the joke. The pantry kid materialized at his side and levered off the cap with a bottle opener from his pocket.

“Ha! That’s service, dude,” Kilroy grinned.

I pulled a second bottle out of the crate and held it out to the kid. “Beer me, kid!”

The kid sprang forward to pop off the cap.

“I like this kid,” Kilroy said. “Let’s keep him.”

*          *          *          *

None of us could remember the pantry kid’s name, so we called him ‘Goose’. We didn’t have the heart to kick him out, so he lived in the odd corners of the house like a small, helpful poltergeist.

“Goose! Laundry!”

“Goose! Barf bucket!”

“Goose! Toilet plunger!”

Mostly, he followed me around like a worshipful shadow doing anything I asked him to and a lot of things I didn’t. He was one of those under-loved kids so desperately eager to please it made him a menace. Whenever I needed something, I would send Goose to fetch it, and sometimes I’d send him into the city to try to find a Major Seventh Diminisher or a can of Distortion just to get him out of the house.

“Quit staring at me, Goose, you’re creeping me out.” I didn’t have to look at him to know he was staring at me with unblinking adoration from the back seat of the GTO. Judge and I were canvassing the city for a rehearsal space and Goose had tagged along.

“Sorry,” he mumbled, tearing his eyes away from the back of my neck.

“This is it,” Judge said. “Pull over.”

I pulled the GTO to the curb alongside a building that looked like it might once have been a complex of warehouses. It stood on the corner of a six-point intersection like the prow of a tanker built out of brick and plywood. The entire, triangular block had been copiously painted the same uniform gray and then abandoned to crumble into flaking disrepair.

If ever there were a place that looked like it housed a nest of vampires, this was it.

I glanced at Goose in the mirror. He was staring at me again.

“Goose, wait in the car.”

*          *          *          *

“You can work here,” Judge said as he led the way down a long, jagged hallway into a cavernous space lit by an ancient string of incandescent bulbs. His voice echoed off the high vault of the ceiling where the light failed to reach the corners. “Usta be a packing house. Mostly gets used for storage now.”

I clapped my hands to listen to the acoustics. The knap echoed off the vault of a high ceiling lost somewhere in the gloom overhead. We would need to install some baffles to keep our sound from turning to mud. Carpets. Sound foam. I made a mental list.

“Neighbors gonna complain about the noise?” I asked.

“It’s zoned mixed-use.”

“It’ll do.” The wooden floorboards creaked under my weight and I looked down. Something gleamed between the planks and I kicked it with the toe of my boot until it skittered across the floor: the brass casing for a 9mm. Judge stooped with a piece of Kleenex to pick it up and tuck it in his pocket.

“Needs to be cleaned,” he said in a tone that said don’t ask questions. “I can get a crew in. But it’s secure—Your equipment’ll be safe here.”

“Yeah, are we going to be safe here?” I was beginning to think Judge might be tapped into the part of the Chicago machine that would find it useful to just-so-happen to have a mixed-use space where no one could hear you scream.

 “Just don’t go poking around behind locked doors and you’ll never have to lie in court.”

I did a circuit of the room, feeling out the dim shadows of the corners, not really certain I wanted to know what was in them. Sam hadn’t thrown any flags on the paperwork, but I still didn’t trust Judge any farther than I could spit into the wind. Even so, I had to admit he was doing a good job of taking care of us. Our cupboards were full. The house was clean. The lawn was mowed. None of us were sleeping on mattresses likely to give us lice or tetanus anymore. Kilroy was flush with weed and tofu. Jojo abounded in clothes and pills. I’d even come home one day to find the house full of the DePaul girls’ volleyball team and a Costco-sized carton of condoms with my name on it. Judge hadn’t attached a note, but he’d sure as hell sent a message: ax and ye shall receive.

“What’re the chances of getting a piano?” I axed.

“You want something specific?”

“Anything made of wood and wire. And pedals. I’m sick of playing a keyboard.”

“I’ll see what I can do.” He watched me explore the space for a moment in silence and then said: “You comin’ by the club this week? Melody’s been askin’ about you.”

My heart leaped at the sound of her name. Excitement flooded my body in a tidal wave. I did my best to play it cool.

“Yeah? What’d she say?”

“Said the two of you got real friendly after Lollapalooza.”

“Yeah, we hooked up.”

 “Said she hasn’t heard from you since.”

 “She didn’t give me her number—told me to come to the club,” I said. “She wasn’t working the night I went.”

Judge stared me down for a minute through squinted eyes. “You gonna see her again?” he asked. I realized this was something personal to him. Melody meant something to him. I wondered if he meant anything to her.

“I want to, but that’s kinda up to her.”

Judge nodded as if this met his approval. “Just don’t fuck with her,” he said. “We clear?” “We’re clear.”

“All good, then.” Judge’s phone buzzed and he glanced at the screen. “I gotta handle this, we done here?”

“Yeah, we’ll take it,” I said. “When can we move in?”

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CHAPTER 22: SUBURBIA will go live Monday, November 22nd , 2021

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